Two years ago, Australian cricket had plunged into its deepest crisis with the ‘Sandpapergate’ drama being played out in the third Test between South Africa and Australia at Cape Town. At that time, critics of the game — the way it is played Down Under — predicted doom for Australian cricket and perhaps an ignominious climb down from its cricketing superpower status.
Under the mentorship of Justin Langer – master of the mind game – and Tim Paine, as skipper, the much-maligned team has now regained its rightful position among the best cricketing nations in the world. Aaron Finch, Australia’s white ball skipper has also contributed to its rapid rise back to the top of the heap.
There is something for sports teams and students of management to learn from the way the Langer-Paine team worked out and implemented the plan to rescue Australian cricket from its worst disaster and to restore its lost honour.
Let’s discuss here the five salient points of Australia’s roadmap to resurgence:
1. Great leaders are inspirational; they aren’t necessarily the best players in the squad — In business, great leaders are usually generalists and not domain experts. Specialist leaders are prone to tell their team members the answer whereas generalists bring their teammates together to find the answer, collectively.
Mike Brearley, the quintessential ‘people manager’, wouldn’t perhaps fit into the England squad of the 1970s as a player but was its legendary skipper. Similarly, Sir Frank Worrell and Richie Benaud certainly weren’t their teams’ best players; they are regarded as all-time great skippers though.
Tim Paine isn’t Australia’s best batsman by a mile. He is an excellent ‘keeper but an average batsman. He is, however, a very good leader of men and somebody who is looked upon as genial and non-controversial. Paine grew up captaining Tasmania in age-group tournaments and was Australia’s Under-19 vice-captain in the 2004 World Cup.
Paine is a man with a soft, friendly exterior but tough as nails from the inside; just the leader Australia needed at a time when they were not only looking to win games but also to be seen to be playing with honesty and integrity.
2. Great leaders have ethics — Both Langer and Paine were concerned about the decent conduct of the Australian players and therefore drew up a code of ethics for the team and called it ‘Elite Honesty’. They were kind, courteous and respectful towards each player and the staff in the squad, besides being good to outsiders too. This rubbed off on their teammates.
Long known for trash talk and sledges, Australian cricketers were, in general, looked upon as arrogant and ill-mannered. Langer informed his players that his team would continue to play the tough Australian way, fight tooth-and-nail but there would be no slurs and abuses. “Banter is acceptable but do not cross the line,” were his orders.
‘Care’ and ‘concern’ for others’ needs is what earned respect for Paine and Langer. In team meetings, both leaders often openly expressed their lack of ability and their mistakes, showing the players that they were in a safe environment and that they were free to err and ask questions too.
In one meeting, in fact, Usman Khawaja telling Langer that his teammates felt intimidated by the coach’s pep-talks and attitude helped the coach mend his ways.
3. Great leaders get the right people on the bus — Jack Welch, GE’s former CEO says, “The team with the best players wins. Therefore surround yourself with the most talented, passionate people available.”
The Langer-Paine combo assured the Australian squad that the best ‘available’ eleven players would enter the ground do battle for the country. When Steve Smith and David Warner – expelled for their misconduct in South Africa – became available to the team having served their ban, they were brought back into the squad straight away.
Langer also requisitioned the services of Ricky Ponting and Steve Waugh, two passionate Aussie legends, to help the Australian squad in its preparations for the ICC World Cup and the Ashes series of 2019. As a leader, he didn’t feel threatened by their presence in the dressing room. Langer knew that both Ponting and Waugh could help his team achieve their goals. Moreover, greats of the past like Adam Gilchrist and others were also invited into the dressing room, from time to time, to talk to his players.
Of course, Langer had his coaching staff to provide him with the technical inputs so necessary at that level.
4. Great leaders ensure that the workplace has a fun working environment — An Australian study of 2,500 employees (St Edward’s University) found that 81 percent of them believed a fun working environment helped make them more productive and 91 percent said that laughing on the job helped reduce work-related stress.
For the Langer mentored squad, the dressing room was a fun place to be in. Players were free to vent their anger, crack jokes, sing or even dance to keep stress to a minimum. The players laughed together – sometimes, they shed tears together too, played pranks and kept the atmosphere in the dressing room as light as possible, without losing focus on the tasks at hand.
The Australians were mentally prepared for the barracking of Smith, Warner and Cameron Bancroft in England during the ICC World Cup and the Ashes series. At the stadiums and during their coach rides, to and from matches, the Australian team laughed off the boos and the tomfoolery that English supporters meted out to them, revealing a high level of self-belief that the players had developed over their 24-month period of resurgence.
Wasn’t it the legend, Michael Jordan who said, “Just play. Have fun. Enjoy the game”?
5. Great leaders respect organisational legacy and culture — The Australian cricket team, since 1876, has won around 45 percent of the Test matches it has played. The team has also won five World Cups, the latest in 2015. “Cricket is the national game of a nation which lives and dies by its sporting prowess,” say the authors of Peak Performance: Business Lessons from the World's Top Sporting Organisations. “Cricket Australia (Previously ACB) operates a fiduciary responsibility on behalf of all Australians, who are the ultimate shareholders of the game.”
Therefore, the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa was a huge letdown for most Australians. It wasn’t surprising then that according to a Roy Morgan Online survey in March 2019, a year after the incident, Australians’ level of distrust in cricket was higher than any other game.
Langer, in his pep-talks, during the two years he has been in charge, kept reminding the players of Australia’s cricketing history and of the legends who have worn the Baggy Green in the country’s 144-year domination of the game. They were constantly told that they were filling the shoes of some giants of the past and therefore had to live up to high expectations.
Langer’s success mantra for cricket is “character over cover drives,” writes Clint Thomas. He, therefore, encourages his players to read about self-development and try out mindfulness techniques.
It has been a tough two-year period for Australian cricket. It was on 24 March, 2018 that the trio of Smith, Warner and Bancroft decided to use unfair means to change the condition of the ball, in that Test match at Cape Town. For Langer and Paine, who took over the team after Smith and his accomplices were banned for a year, it was a herculean task, not only to get the team to perform but also to be seen as a team with ethics. They have succeeded, to a large extent, but there’s still work to be done. After reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup in England and then retaining the Ashes, Langer was asked, “What now?” “We start again,” he replied.
The author is a caricaturist and sportswriter. A former fast bowler and coach, he believes in calling a spade a spade.
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